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Ecuador supreme court fired, quito in emergency
Updated: 2005-04-16 15:01

Ecuadorean President Lucio Gutierrez fired the entire Supreme Court on Friday in an attempt to end a political crisis and declared a state of emergency in the capital Quito to quell protests.

"The magistrates of the current Supreme Court are declared dismissed," former army colonel Gutierrez said in a surprise television address to the nation.

He also declared the Andean mountain capital in a state of emergency, which restricts rights to assembly and expression.

But thousands of enraged citizens rushed onto the streets of Quito to defy the emergency and protest, waving flags, bashing pots and calling on Gutierrez to quit. The security forces did not immediately move to disperse them.

It was the second time Ecuador's Supreme Court has been fired in four months.

In December, a short-lived pro-government congressional majority dismissed an earlier court at the behest of Gutierrez, who argued it was biased against him. The opposition accused him of behaving like a dictator and the president's attempts to end the subsequent congressional deadlock failed.

Protests grew louder when the new president of the Supreme Court, named by pro-government legislators, threw out corruption charges against a key Gutierrez ally, Abdala Bucaram. This allowed the former president to return from eight years of exile in Panama earlier in April.

The United States and the United Nations both expressed concern about government interference with the courts and Gutierrez lost his congressional majority, delaying key economic legislation.

In a bid to end the crisis, Gutierrez offered to set up an independent body to name new judges, in a judicial reform he said should be approved by a referendum. But the opposition rejected the proposal, demanding the immediate dismissal of the Supreme Court.

A key opposition legislator reacted badly to the latest move, saying Gutierrez was a tyrant.

"He's taking us into a dictatorship and we're going to stop him by supporting demonstrations in Quito," said Xavier Sandoval, a leading congressmen from the Social Christian Party, Ecuador's largest.

The political crisis has reawakened memories of popular unrest that has led to the overthrow of two Ecuadorean presidents since 1997.

Gutierrez himself served jail time for leading an attempted coup in 2000. He was elected in late 2002 with support from the poor majority but has alienated many supporters by negotiating with the International Monetary Fund and pursuing austere economic policies.

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